It was rebellion, insurrection, guerrilla war, terrorism, ethnic violence, international intrigue and angry political controversy on several continents, all in one.
The Catholic minority claimed economic and political oppression, and demanded that the North, which was majority Protestant and part of the United Kingdom, be joined to the Republic of Ireland to the south (majority Catholic) in a single independent state.
It was a war of two sides, each demanding absolute loyalty. For those involved it was us against them, with mutually exclusive demands: either/or. Each took a position that ceded nothing to the other side; each side demanded complete victory.
There were many cease-fires that never seemed to hold. It all seemed hopeless, especially as it reflected ethnic histories and loyalties.
And then, it vanished.
It vanished off the nightly news, the television and movie screens. For after talks led to dramatic agreements (that few believed would hold), it entered a long period of undramatic negotiation. Today this intractable conflict is all gone, due to a series of far-reaching agreements that involve a very much changed Republic of Ireland.
|Belfast City Hall today|
The second is the how, which involves creativity, complexity and diversity, to solve the underlying problems. It even involved accepting paradox.
Britain maintained Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but allowed it to go its own way. The Republic of Ireland gave up its territorial claims on the North, and entered into agreements with the North that made the two Irelands functionally interdependent. In a fascinating essay in the New York Review of Books, Fintan O'Toole writes:
"This reciprocal withdrawal of territorial claims has recreated Northern Ireland as a new kind of political space—one that is claimed by nobody. It is not, in effect, a territory at all. Its sovereignty is a matter not of the land but of the mind: it will be whatever its people can agree to make it. And within this space, national identity is to be understood in a radically new way."
"In its most startling paragraph the Belfast Agreement recognizes “the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.” It accepts, in other words, that national identity (and the citizenship that flows from it) is a matter of choice. Even more profoundly, it accepts that this choice is not binary. If you’re born in Northern Ireland, you have an unqualified right to hold an Irish passport, a British passport, or each of the two. Those lovely little words “or both” stand as a rebuke to all absolutist ideas of nationalism. Identities are fluid, contingent, and multiple."
|Ireland's new Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, son of an|
immigrant from India, and openly gay
Today Ireland is in the news for a very different reason (apart from being the absurd target of a hurricane.) The "Irish problem" in 2017 is prompted by Brexit. The UK as a whole--though it was mostly Great Britain--voted to leave the European Union. But Ireland, North and South, doesn't want to leave. O'Toole:
"Ireland has evolved a complex and fluid sense of what it means to have a national identity while England has reverted to a simplistic and static one. This fault line opens a crack into which the whole Brexit project may stumble."
The nub of the Brexit problem is this:
"When these ideas were framed and overwhelmingly endorsed in referendums on both sides of the Irish border, there was an assumption that there would always be a third identity that was neither Irish nor British but that could be equally shared: membership of the European Union. In the preamble to the agreement, the British and Irish governments evoked “the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.” The two countries joined the EU together in 1973 and their experience of working within it as equals was crucial in overcoming centuries of animosity."
I'm not going into the Brexit weeds on this--O'Toole is the better guide--but instead I point out a certain resonance, if not model. I hear it said that the United States is still the most diverse country in the West, and demographically that diversity is growing. Yet we are in the political grip of the either/or, of two sides divided by ideology, world view, economics, education, geography and especially history and its relationship with ethnic and other identities.
One flashpoint is immigration. There are lurches left and right all over the world prompted by immigration, as either causing real problems or as a hot button distracting from what's really causing the problems, or very likely both.
We know it's possible because others have arrived there. Which is why we're not seeing gunfire on the streets of Belfast anymore.